Writing Re-Enlightenment

Is your creativity in tip-top shape?

Posted in writing by Caralyn Davis on August 25, 2009

I’ve been a professional nonfiction writer and editor for about 20 years. So you’d think that I would know how to write pretty much anything. Yet I was one of those people who dreamed about writing fiction instead of actually doing it. Basically I was too scared to try, and reading those ever-present articles about the dedication of true writers didn’t help. You know, the ones that say: “A real writer has to write. It’s in our DNA. We find a way no matter what, or we’d go crazy.”

Meanwhile, I would come close to crying blood as I struggled to find both the time and the creative energy to write a few paragraphs of a short story over a period of months, if not years. So I was pretty sure I would never qualify as a “real” fiction writer.

But then last October, I lost my primary writing contract due to consolidation in the publishing industry, and I decided that my enforced sabbatical was a perfect time to put my vague dreams into more solid form. So I enrolled in a creative writing class at the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

I’m now about to start my third straight semester, and I’ve already written more fiction than at any other time of my life. I’ll admit, I’m no _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite literary giant). In fact, I haven’t been able to get a short story published yet.

But even if I never manage to make anyone’s best seller list, I’m better off. Learning to access my creativity, to work with language, and to create a good story that can impact a reader has produced an unlooked-for side effect: All of my writing has improved.

Whether I am writing a blog, a corporate presentation, or a scintillating educational article about technology transfer, I can dip into the creative well to craft a stronger story. It’s also now easier for me to be creative in other areas, such as designing mosaics, because I’ve gotten used to letting my mind flow freely and allowing ideas and inspiration to pop into my consciousness.

The Great Smokies Writing Program has classes in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry — any of which can help anyone channel their creativity and learn to use language in new and better ways. The fall semester may be the program’s strongest yet, according to Executive Director Tommy Hays.

If you live in Western North Carolina, take advantage of this great opportunity. If not, scour your area and find a good program. A lot of people have let their creativity atrophy. (I think the mere existence of Twitter brings that lesson home.) So flex your muscles.

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The colon, part 1: Organize lists

Posted in grammar, Uncategorized by Caralyn Davis on August 25, 2009

Do a few of the words and clauses in your writing seem to be stumbling around lost and confused in the dark? If you’re missing some structure, consider whether the colon (:) can help you rein in your text. The colon is a tiny grammatical flashlight, pointing your reader toward a path that you want them to follow. In other words, the colon emphasizes or governs text. One great way to use a colon is to organize series or lists.

Technically, a colon should be preceded by a complete independent clause when you are making a list. In other words, the clause potentially can stand alone as a sentence that makes at least a little sense. Consider the following examples:

1. Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson are his eyes, his pale skin, and his brown hair. (Please note: I’m actually a little too old and decrepit to give a flying fig about R.Pattz. This is just a horribly misplaced attempt to reach “the youth.”)

2. Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson include the following: his eyes, his pale skin, and his brown hair.

In Example 1, you shouldn’t use the colon because “Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson are” could never stand alone as a sentence.

In Example 2, using the colon is OK because “Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson include the following” is an independent clause that potentially could be a separate sentence. Not a great sentence, admittedly, but it has a subject, a verb, an object and no awkward constructions dangling off the end like “such as,” “including” or “for example.”

Examples 1 and 2 both work as sentences. Nothing is wrong with either one. So how do you decide when to use a colon and create a defined list? That’s a matter of style preference, but my basic rule of thumb is this: If you have five or more simple items, go ahead and make a list with a colon like in Example 2. Also use the colon if your list contains three or more extensive clauses. Here are some examples:

3. Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson include the following: his eyes, his skin, his brown hair, his chin, his chest, his fingers, his forearms, and his toes.

4. Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson include the following: his piercing yet slumberous eyes that seem to twinkle just at us, his vampire-ready pale skin that makes us want to take moonlit strolls, and his beautifully messy brown hair that we would love to run our hands through and make just a tad messier.

In Examples 3 and 4, you can see how the colon truly highlights the text that follows it, creating lists that are easier to read and comprehend. If the information is particularly important to a nonfiction article, you also should consider making a bulleted or numbered list that is set off by spacing and indentation so that it is emphasized further for your reader.

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